Employers say college grads lack needed skills, but that could be changing, survey finds

Dive Brief:

  • Employers remain confident in the value of higher education but continue to think new graduates lack the skills needed to succeed in the workplace, according to a survey of nearly 500 executives and hiring managers. 
  • It is the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ seventh survey of employers, and past iterations showed a similar disconnect between companies and colleges. 
  • However, the latest findings show graduates are getting better at communicating their skills and that employers’ views vary by age.

Dive Insight:

The survey only included organizations in which at least a quarter of entry-level roles are filled by people with an associate or bachelor’s degree. Most are privately held. The largest share of all the firms polled — around a quarter  are in the technology sector, followed by finance (12%). 

Employers continue to value skills AAC&U presents as the hallmarks of a liberal arts education. But, as with its past surveys, the findings highlight a disconnect between abilities employers think are important and those they say new graduates bring to work.

The gaps were the biggest for critical thinking, data analysis and interpretation, and applying knowledge to real-world settings, according to the survey. Those are among the top five skills responding employers deemed “very important.”

One change could help narrow the gap. Students are getting better during the hiring process at communicating the skills they’ve acquired in college. Some 87% of employers said recent grads are “somewhat” or “very” effective at doing so, compared to 67% who told AAC&U in 2018 that new graduates were “at least fairly effective” at this.

An employer’s age correlated with how much they valued a potential hire’s college credential, the survey found. Younger employers were more likely to say getting a credential was “definitely worth it” and to be more satisfied with grads’ ability to apply skills and knowledge they learned in college to complex issues at work. However, younger employers were more likely to have “very little confidence” in higher ed, though only 17% of that group said so. 

Younger employers were also more likely than their older counterparts to value a range of applied learning experiences. Their biggest differences were in community-based work, research collaborations with faculty and exposure to global learning experiences. 

Colleges are taking steps to help students better articulate what they’re learning and are giving them more applied experiences to show it. This includes embedding short-term credentials in two- and four-year degrees, as well as badges and other insignia that provide a template for students to demonstrate learning in soft skills such as critical thinking that they can later show to employers.

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